Photo Credit: SPNI
Haredi religious children gather around an SPNI Community Gardens staff member to learn planting tips in Jerusalem

Israel’s Society for the Protection of Nature (SPNI) has long maintained a Community Garden Initiative that has grown 70 community gardens in Jerusalem, and literally hundreds of beautiful community gardens around the Jewish State.

Together with the support of municipalities across the country, SPNI executes creative sustainability programs in neighborhoods that lack access to sufficient environmental education – and is now actively implementing more targeted solutions to encourage participation among Israel’s diverse populations.

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One of the organization’s highest priorities is the engagement of haredi-religious neighborhoods, where the concentrated educational curriculum has no time for environmental awareness.

SPNI’s Community Garden Project is filling this educational gap by teaching green practices in a way that embraces this distinctive culture.

“We focus on educating about nature and sustainability in a way that compliments the lifestyle of the community,” explains Amanda Lind, the Community Gardens Coordinator for SPNI Jerusalem.

The haredi religious community garden program is designed specifically to respect and support the community’s deeply religious values. Gardening time is separated for each gender, and abides by the laws of the Shemittah (Sabbatical) year.

Thus far, the tailored programs have been highly successful, bringing together segments of the haredi religious population that have never before had the chance to connect with nature, or with each other.

SPNI leaves it up to each individual community to request its program, “at which time concrete plans are made to lay the groundwork for grassroots movements,” Lind explains.

As she says, the project is “willing to take root wherever there is interest.

“Creating green spaces requires work and dedication and presents an important opportunity for communities to take responsibility of their own area. In order for them to take ownership, it cannot be forced.”

Currently, the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhoods of Choma HaShlishit and Maalot Dafna both have thriving communal gardens.

The project provides unique learning opportunities for all ages, especially for cheder-age (elementary) students who spend most of the day inside studying and rarely have the opportunity to connect with nature.

“Instead of destroying trees, which is often the case for children in these neighborhoods , they’re planting trees and making positive contributions,” Lind said. “It gives them a sense of purpose and responsibility, and they love knowing they have the ability to change a space and make it beautiful.”

The children engage in activities such as designing the layout of the garden and planting the trees, herbs and vegetables. This provides them with opportunities to interact with nature. At a young age, they begin to understand the importance of environmental sustainability and appreciate its value in their communities.

The project has also been successful in promoting inclusion, allowing teenage girls with Down syndrome from the community to receive focused environmental education alongside their peers. A joint initiative with the local community center, the sister program teaches its participants how to grow and sustain plants, and provides practical gardening experience in Jerusalem’s Neve Yaakov neighborhood. As a reward for their contributions to the community, SPNI staff members take the participants to the Botanical Gardens, where they can learn even more about the beauty and diversity of Israeli flora.

Through its educational and hands-on programs, the project is transforming insular communities across the country into eco-friendly educators.

Marlee Michelson contributed content to this article.

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